We may be witnessing the beginning of the end of Free Market Global Capitalism. The ideological mantra of continual economic growth upon which the entire capitalist system is based is in serious question. The ongoing and apparently unsolvable fiscal crises in Europe and the United States should alert us to the fact that something fundamental is happening to our taken-for-granted (but basically flawed) economic beliefs. It seems to have eluded the financial gurus and capitalists that everlasting growth in an environment of finite resources is an impossibility. Sooner or later those resources will be used up and the growth that they have made possible must come to an end.
One of those resources upon which the entire system depends – oil - is now beginning to dry up, and worse still, the fossil fuels that remain, if they continue to be exploited and burned, threaten the very existence of life on earth. Despite political assurances of business as usual and the continuing blind pursuit of further Free Trade Agreements (China, India, the US?) the signs are all around us that the system is falling apart under the twin pressures of Peak Oil and Climate Change. In New Zealand this winter, fruit and vegetable prices reached unprecedented levels, due to the Queensland floods earlier in the year and the cost of air-freight. Unable to compete with Australian imports in better times, New Zealand growers had ceased production in the absence of which demand has now vastly outstripped supply. The same has happened with other foods, so that now low-income New Zealand families are left unable to properly feed themselves. This is just a small current example, but it portends much worse in the long term.
All of this has happened because over the last twenty years we have allowed ourselves to be lulled into being consumers rather than producers, buying our commodities and luxuries from far away, and supported by the price of cheap oil. At the same time, we have used this cheap oil to fuel (no pun intended) our export drive to sell our own commodities and produce far overseas where prices are better and profits bigger, condemning New Zealanders to paying unaffordable export prices for domestic products – staples like cheese, milk, lamb, beef - foods for which New Zealand was a major producer and consumer and which were always available and inexpensive.
These unaffordable export prices, and the economy on which they are built are completely dependent upon the availability of cheap fossil fuel as well as on a stable global climate (as well as the dollar exchange rate which is influenced by both). When either of these two factors changes, the price of food will increase, and since it now seems apparent that oil is running out and the climate is changing, we can confidently conclude that the system in its entirety is becoming increasingly unstable and unsustainable, ultimately, I believe, to the point of collapse.
In this context, the (suburban) patterns of human settlement to which we have become accustomed over the last seventy years are no longer tenable and we need urgently to develop housing systems that are affordable, sustainable and environmentally friendly. This PDF tells the story of the development of a sustainable housing system for a Maori tribal group in New Zealand. The project is currently on hold.
All of this will inevitably impact upon the way we live and the way we will need to live if we are to survive with any semblance of dignity. The climatic and economic shifts that are now beginning to manifest will require different kinds of human relationship, and therefore different kinds of settlement patterns. The suburban sprawl that was spawned by cheap oil and oil-industry and automobile manufacturer inspired freeway developments are now becoming an encumbrance as private transport becomes increasingly expensive. This essay looks at three different settlement contexts:
It suggests three different planning strategies that can be used to create more sustainable communities.
To download the PDF click here